According to new research, raising investment in early childhood development programs is a highly cost-effective strategy, potentially providing considerable returns, promoting long-term growth and significantly reducing inequalities in low and middle-income countries.

According to Patrice Engle from California Polytechnic State University in California, USA, who is one of the lead authors of a new Series on child development, published Online First in The Lancet:

“The estimated benefit of investment in improving just one component of early childhood development, preschool enrolment, suggests that increasing preschool attendance to 25% could generate US$10.6 billion while a 50% increase could generate US$33.7 billion, with a benefit-to-cost ratio estimated to range from 6.4 to 17.6 (depending on the projected percentage of children attending preschool, 25% or 50%)”*.

The Lancet reported in 2007 that over 200 million children under the age of 5 years failed to meet their full developmental potential due to preventable risks, including poverty, malnutrition, and inadequate levels of intellectual stimulation, thus adding to the cycle of low educational achievement and poor health as well as poverty in later life.

This Series examines new evidence on the causes of inequality in child development and evaluates the effectiveness of current early child development interventions, and also calculating the cost of failing to invest in disadvantaged children’s development potential.

The first paper in the Series shows that the most effective and cost-efficient time to prevent inequalities starts before birth and continues in the first years of life. Malaria, exposure to societal violence and maternal depression are among some of the newly identified risks.

The two most important protective interventions for child development are breastfeeding and higher maternal education with studies consistently proving the link between breastfeeding, better school grades and higher IQ scores. Evidence is also increasingly found, that young children of educated mothers achieve higher levels of cognitive development and better access to interventions.

The second paper in the Series addresses effective interventions, such as home based and community based parenting and family support, which help children’s cognitive and emotional development.

Interventions could mean for example, that children aged 3 years or younger can assist to improve parent-child interactions allowing children to learn through play, thus helping them to develop foundations. For children aged between 3 and 6 years interventions could provide early childhood learning centers, improving their readiness for school and enhancing their school performance, so that they are more likely to succeed in school, achieve higher incomes in adulthood and in turn can provide better education, health, nutrition, and health care for their own children.

The authors of the second paper explain: “Our research shows that if we want to reduce the burden of poor child development, we should offer high quality, integrated programs that target the most disadvantaged children and the multiple risks to which they are exposed”*.

However, they continue saying that although the poorest and most vulnerable children are those most likely benefiting from child development programs, these children are the least likely to have access to them.

The developing world currently receives very little funding for child development programs from governments:

“A public investment of 1% of GNP is the minimum required to ensure provision of quality early child development services…[however] governments of Kenya, Nepal, and Tajikistan spend just 0.1% of GNP and Nicaragua and Senegal spend less than 0.02% of GNP on preschool education (data were not available on any other early child development services).”

Authors warn that policies and indicators are effective only if funding is available. They stress: “Unless governments allocate more resources to quality early child development programs for the poorest segment of the population, economic disparities will continue to exist and widen.”

UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake also urges in an accompanying comment, saying:

“The two Lancet papers present new evidence on the causes and consequences of developmental inequities in early childhood – and the exceptional opportunity we have to redress them. We must not ignore this evidence. We must act on it.”

He continues saying:

“Increased investment is needed in quality parenting programs and organized early learning centers for the most disadvantaged children. These services should also be better integrated into existing community-based programs across a broad range of sectors including health, nutrition, education, water and sanitation, and protection.”

Written by Petra Rattue